by Kimberly Dark
I’ve been practicing yoga for more than twenty years, teaching for nearly fifteen. Yes, I have the body of a long-term yoga practitioner. I’ve done things with my body that would astound you. It’s the yoga body all of the magazines have promised.
If you could see me, you’d laugh (or keep yourself from it) because we all understand, without saying why, that no one is supposed to want a fat body like mine.
My regular yoga practice started because my back hurt from carrying the baby. My friend Wendy said, “Come with me to the adult school where I just started taking yoga twice a week. The teacher’s a little weird and it’s a big drafty room with concrete floors, but maybe it’ll help your back.” That was when there were probably three yoga studios in San Diego, rather than three studios in every neighborhood like there are now that yoga has become a fitness craze.
We called the teacher Freaky Phyllis because yoga was a little weird and she was always saying goofy stuff about superior Hindu spirituality. She wasn’t a really clear thinker, Phyllis. One day we were resting in corpse pose at the end of class, and she started talking about how Mother Teresa is a perfect example of Hindu spirituality. That I couldn’t swallow and so I popped up and said “Phyllis, Mother Teresa is CATHOLIC!” To which she clucked and said I just didn’t understand.
So, Wendy and I decided we couldn’t stand Phyllis anymore and we wanted to learn more, so we chose a different yoga studio, a proper yoga studio, but we couldn’t get it together for our first class on the same day. Wendy went on Tuesday; I was going to go on Thursday. We’d work it out to go together the next week. Wendy reported to me that the class was great. Quiet, nice props, good instruction. So, on Thursday I showed up a bit early and meet the teacher. She looked me up and down and said, “Oh, I don’t know if I’m going to let you come to the class tonight.”
At first, I really didn’t understand. Even though I’ve been the fattest woman in the aerobics class, in the gym, and on the trail all my life, I wasn’t thinking about being different in the yoga class. The adult school class we’d been attending had a variety of students – different ages, shapes and sizes. This new teacher looked at my body some more and said, “Well, you know, with new students, we have you take some private classes first. Then we can tell if you’re able to join the group class.”
“Oh, I’m not new to yoga,” I said. I’ve been practicing a couple of years.”
To which she replied. “Well, clearly you have some orthopedic difficulties.”
And so I left, my face hot with silent shame. Because she was in charge and that’s how it works.
She probably didn’t even mean to be biased or bigoted or even realize she was treating me differently than slender Wendy. She was probably just managing her discomfort with my body and her mind was super-fast to make up an excuse with which she was really comfortable. Honorable even. She was just being reasonable.
This is how it works:
I’m not supposed to say anything. I’m supposed to take the shame she gave me and carry it. And at that youthful point in my life, I did. I turned and left and tried not to feel bad when Wendy would mention taking classes at that pretty little studio.
Because I didn’t speak up, that teacher never had a chance to practice being her better self, to confront her fears of my body. She had to keep those fears and had just justified them further because I followed the script. We both followed the cultural script we were given.
But don’t be sad; you know how this story ends. I found a studio that treated me like a regular student. Indeed, I became a regular student, and then trained to be a teacher. And I welcome everyone to the yoga mat. I welcome bodies like mine, bodies different than mine and some bodies that scare me too. How will I teach this person? I wonder. And then I challenge myself to learn. I check my language and how I interact with bodies because we all deserve respect and encouragement and my culture’s failings are in me too.
When people challenge my body, in the teacher role, as they sometimes do with words or glances, I give them another chance. I smile and maintain eye contact and remain in my full humanity as they question my validity. It doesn’t happen very often, but it happens consistently. That’s the culture in which we live. The fat middle-aged lady shouldn’t be the fitness instructor, yoga instructor, rock climber, or disco-dancer. The fat middle-aged lady shouldn’t be physical or respectable in any way. I am respectable in the body I have every day and I give people a chance to join me in that view.
I’m a yoga teacher and I show people how to practice with the body and the mind. Just like with yoga, diligence with language and thinking bring improvement. It doesn’t matter who we are. When we practice something often enough, we change.
Read about Kimberly Dark at www.kimberlydark.com. Kimberly is leading two Hawaii retreats in June and December 2015. More info at https://kalani.com/workshops/2015/yoga-and-story-retreat-0.